Pittsburgh has had a nearly perfect slate of five games to start its 2020 NFL campaign. The team is currently leading the AFC North with a 5-0 record and is the only club with a 5-0 record in the AFC alongside its next opponent, the Titans. The Steelers have won three out of their five games by more than one possession, Ben Roethlisberger has led a terrific offense and the defense is one of the very best in the NFL.
This resembles a strong contrast to all the preseason predictions regarding the Steelers. BetMGM placed their odds to win a championship before the season at 30-1. The Ravens, for comparison, led decisively with 4-1 odds to win Super Bowl LV. Four months later, the only correct prediction is that all three teams are very good and capable of competing for a playoff spot. The Ravens are standing at 5-1, while the Browns are a mere game behind at 4-2. However, the Steelers might have been the most balanced team throughout the first six weeks of NFL football.
The people which doubted the Steelers in the offseason didn’t seem to make a strong case why Pittsburgh can’t return to the top of the mountain again. Most of the complaints were directed at Big Ben and his injury-ridden 2019 campaign. Roethlisberger suffered from a season-ending injury in the Week 2 clash with the Seahawks last September. Both Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges were dissatisfying and the Steelers missed out on a playoff berth, finishing 8-8.
Roethlisberger himself was poor during his two outings to start the 2019 season. The 17-year quarterback completed just 56 percent of his 62 throwing attempts. Meanwhile, he posted a 66.0 passer rating and an 0-1 TD/Int. ratio. However, not only has he managed to stay healthy so far but his problems are long gone. Roethlisberger’s passer rating of 109.1 is the sixth-best in the league, a career-high, and his first over 100.0 in six years.
This just goes to prove that healthy players with injury problems in the past are wrongfully deemed “injury-prone”. This remains one of the most egregious forms of market inefficiency in the NFL. Had the Steelers tried to move on from Big Ben, a move truly absurd but pushed by some people in the Steelers establishments, some team would find themselves incredibly lucky to get him cheap. Now that Pittsburgh never fell for such logic-deprived decision-making, Roethlisberger, against the odds but in accordance with common sense, is back to what he deems “the norm” – average a passer rating of over 90.0. He has done that in 13 of the past 16 seasons, and, seemingly, 2020 isn’t going down the opposite path.
Like many players before him, not just quarterbacks, an injury immediately wipes out one’s value not just for the current campaign but in the long term. When college players realized that an injury in a bowl game affects their draft value, they stopped participating in these. This prompted calls for an NCAA postseason reform. In the NFL, it’s the teams and not the players that have the need for their players to be highly valued amongst NFL front offices ahead of trade time. However, teams can only rest these players so must so, inevitably, they suffer injuries. This is when, more often than not, other teams find bargains.
Of course, the media and the fans underestimating Roethlisberger doesn’t mean people within the industry agree with this narrative. However, an injury-ridden past is a decision-making inefficiency which both sides seem to get wrong and overvalue. It rarely has translated into more of these injury woes after a player is finally healthy.
However, even if Big Ben wasn’t his usual self, there would still be many reasons to believe that talent and depth are capable of carrying the team on the offensive side of the ball. The Steelers already had quite the solid trio of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and James Washington. All three are having good seasons with 20+ targets each. In addition, Smith-Schuster has 23 receptions for a catch percentage of 82.1%. Pittsburgh surrounded those with two new additions, Chase Claypool and tight end Eric Ebron. Each of them also has more than 20 targets. Moreover, the Notre Dame second-round pick has caught 70 percent of his targets for 17 catches. Add to that team-high 4 touchdowns.
Claypool has stood out as a long-threat weapon with 19 yards per reception, yet he’s been very efficient. With everyone else involved in the intermediate passing game, the Steelers have a consistent yet diverse passing game. Furthermore, James Conner has provided support on the ground, averaging 4.9 yards per run on 75 carries. Pittsburgh’s offensive success is certainly no fruit of many mistakes and rare situational games. It has more weapons than almost any other AFC team to move the ball downfield. Moreover, it shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon barring an injury.
The offensive display the Steelers have put up is the main difference between the narrative and the reality. The defense, which finished fifth in both points and yards last year, was never a subject of criticism. Pittsburgh’s wins have indeed depended more on their top-three defense. The Steelers defense is the eighth-best against the pass and the second-best against the run. The pass-rush has also provided a noticeable spark, coming up with 24 sacks. Multiple injuries in the defense could prove to be more impactful than multiple injuries on the offense.
Nevertheless, it has been the Big Ben-led offensive unit that has defied the expectation thus far in 2020. Now they look more like a balanced team than one, the unsustainable success of which is driven by the defense. Moreover, the offense, once doubted, seems like a powerhouse through more than a third of the 2020 NFL season. This has established the Steelers as one of the most serious contenders not only out north but in the whole AFC.